By Christopher Flavelle
© The New York Times Co.
The Biden administration Thursday announced a record injection of money to help communities gird against the effects of climate change, as disasters continue to pummel the United States.
The new funds — $3.5 billion in grants to states to protect against floods, wildfires and other threats — mark a shift in U.S. disaster policy as climate change gets worse: Rather than smaller, more targeted investments, the government is throwing huge sums of money at disaster preparation as fast as it can.
“The risks that we are seeing from climate change are the crisis of our generation,” said Deanne Criswell, leader of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is administering the money.
The goal of the new money is to get local and state officials to broaden their approach to put less emphasis on small-scale projects that fortify individual homes or buildings and more attention on ways to protect entire communities, she said.
“We’ve had a very incremental approach to how we’ve been doing climate risk mitigation,” Criswell said. “We really want to start to shift the focus.”
The announcement is the latest example of federal money going toward climate resilience and adaptation at levels that previously would have been hard to imagine.
In May, President Joe Biden said he would double funding, to $1 billion, for another FEMA program — called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities — which also gives state and local governments money for projects such as seawalls and drainage or for helping people relocate away from vulnerable areas.
And a bipartisan infrastructure bill pending in Congress would provide tens of billions of dollars in climate resilience funding, the most in American history. That package includes an additional $1 billion for Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities and $3.5 billion for a separate flood-protection program at FEMA.
The explosion of new money reflects the growing toll that climate change is putting on communities around the country.
Starting with a string of hurricanes and wildfires in 2017, the United States has suffered devastating disasters every year since: Hurricane Michael wiping out towns in the Florida Panhandle in 2018, Midwest flooding in 2019 and a record 12 major storms making landfall in 2020.
Last year, 22 disasters that struck the country each caused at least $1 billion in damage — another record.
The new willingness to spend heavily also reflects the growing toll on the federal budget. From 2005 to 2019, the federal government spent almost a half-trillion dollars on disaster assistance, according to the Government Accountability Office, which considers climate change a threat to the government’s financial health.
Spending more money to protect homes and communities before disasters, rather than after they happen, could reduce those costs, studies suggest. A dollar spent to prepare for disaster saves an average of $6 later, according to federal research.
The new spending is possible because of a quirk in federal rules, which let FEMA direct a portion of disaster money — usually about 15% — toward grants to states for projects that reduce the impact of future disasters. Those so-called hazard mitigation grants do not require approval from Congress.
In a typical year, that formula usually generates about $1 billion in grants, according to Roy Wright, a senior FEMA official during the Obama and Trump administrations.
But the pandemic radically changed those numbers. To help states cope with the impacts of the virus, the federal government declared disasters — a step usually reserved for physical disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires — in every state, then used those declarations to provide tens of billions of dollars in assistance.
As a side effect of the government channeling that COVID-19 assistance through FEMA, the agency was able to count the rush of new money toward its formula for hazard-mitigation grants.
The new grant money will be divided by state, based on the amount of COVID-19 aid each received. Texas will get the most money, $666 million, followed by California ($484 million), New York ($378 million) and Florida ($185 million).